When I began writing these short pieces for the New Statesman a year ago, I was reacting in part to what I felt were misrepresentations and misunderstandings of life in the Northern Isles that were appearing with some regularity in the national media.
The islands, and Fair Isle in particular, were portrayed as somehow old fashioned – relics of an era long since forgotten elsewhere. The people who lived here were too often caricatured as naïve and idealistic, backward-looking, or, worse, as mere museum pieces, existing solely for the entertainment of our visitors.
I wanted to write an alternative story; one that did not treat island life as an eccentric curiosity, or as a polar opposite to the ‘normal life’ that is lived elsewhere. I wanted to write about the realities of living here – the problems as well as the pleasures – and to do this without adding too much of a romantic sheen. I also wanted to ask myself what exactly it is that makes places like Fair Isle different, and specifically what it is about this particular community that visitors and islanders find so refreshing and worthwhile. On this last point I am quite sure that I have not succeeded, but I wanted to offer here a few final thoughts.
There is a common misconception about Fair Isle’s community, which I think is perpetuated by the tendency to consider it as being a cohesive unit, rather than a nebulous group of individuals. Fair Isle is not a community that is sustained by any kind of heady idealism, or by a desire for ‘like-minded’ communal living. It is a community of individuals, often with very different opinions and ideas, who simply choose to consider their neighbours’ interests as well as their own.
We do this, I think, for two reasons, both of which involve a recognition of something that can elsewhere remain hidden. Firstly, there is the recognition that each person has some sort of role, no matter how ill-defined, within the community. Many of us have jobs that are needed for the maintenance of essential services; others may simply offer a different way of looking at things. But each of us relies, quite literally, upon a network of other people, sharing this island with us. While this fact remains true wherever you live, it is often difficult to see.
The second reason is that people here recognise that the community, as a social group, is itself worth sustaining – that there is something here to sustain. Most people feel no need to define that something, just to acknowledge it. It is related, I would suggest, to an entirely natural and instinctive desire to be part of a functioning social group. After all, that is how human beings, as social animals, have evolved. But it is a feeling that is increasingly hard to find in other places today.
The community works so long as most people, most of the time, are able to remember and accept that their own interests are not always consistent with those of their neighbours, and that everyone benefits by acting with this in mind. This seems to me to be an entirely healthy and natural social order, and one that is completely alien to the hierarchical structures of power and wealth that now binds society together throughout most of the West. It is this naturalness that I think visitors notice when they come here, even for a short time; the feeling that, somehow, this is how it is meant to be.
Anyone who travels in the remote parts of Scotland, and particularly in the Western and Northern Isles, will have come across the evidence of abandonment. Old crofts and cottages lie derelict, ruined. Whole villages and islands that once were populated are now entirely empty of people. It can be a depressing sight. This island could very easily have gone the same way. But it did not.
For me, Fair Isle is a place of great hope. People here work hard to maintain something that they truly believe in, something that they cannot find anywhere else. What they find on this island is a real community of individuals, a natural and native order of things, and a satisfaction that springs not so much from a way of life, but a way of living.
Many thanks to Dave Wheeler for all his wonderful photographs.